The 2020 congressional race in Iowa’s Second District was a squeaker.
As of writing, Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R) leads Rita Hart (D) by six votes out of nearly 400,000 cast. That’s as if both of them ran even in a footrace for 3.1 miles and Miller-Meeks won by six inches.
The lines between close races and squeakers can get blurry, with the candidates who trail putting up more of a fight than one might expect, given the results. But here, there’s no blurriness. This is a close race.
It’s also a race that has been certified by the state as complete following a recount. Miller-Meeks has been seated provisionally in Congress, though Hart has not conceded. Instead, she has foregone legal challenges in Iowa courts and instead asked the House to determine the election’s victor — something the Constitution empowers the House to do.
Her complaint, filed in December, challenges 22 ballots that Hart and her attorneys argue should have been included in the total. If they are included, Hart has a lead of nine votes (since not all of the excluded ballots were for her).
Understandably, this appeal to the Democratic-led House has frustrated Republican leaders. On Thursday, both House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) attacked Democrats as broadly anti-democratic and specifically hypocritical, given the left’s complaints about Donald Trump’s post-election behavior.
McCarthy was asked by CNN’s Manu Raju what difference he saw between the effort to contest the results in Iowa and Trump’s months-long effort to raise unfounded questions about the validity of the presidential results nationally. After an extended back-and-forth, McConnell summarized his view of the distinction.
“The premise of your question doesn’t work. So if your premise of the question of going to the courts, [Hart] didn’t go to the courts. Did she win it on Election Day? No. Did she win it in the recount? No,” McConnell said. “Does Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi say it’s just six votes? She’s got six members that’s going to disenfranchise the more than 400,000 people that voted in that district. Pure politics.”
McConnell made a similar comparison.
“Right now as we speak, Speaker Pelosi and Washington Democrats are literally trying to overturn a state-certified election here in Congress. That’s exactly what they’re doing over in the House right now,” McConnell claimed. “The outcome was certified. That’s the magic word — certified — that we heard over and over again in November and December,” he added, later saying that “the process played out in a way that every liberal in America spent November, December and January insisting was beyond question.”
It’s very much worth noting that the charges of hypocrisy being applied by the two Republican leaders can certainly be returned in their direction (which was Raju’s point). McConnell declined to acknowledge President Biden’s victory until the Electoral College voted in mid-December, well after states had certified their votes. (In a radio interview, one of the Democrats who certified the Iowa vote argued that doing so simply “starts the clock ticking” for appeals by Hart.) McCarthy repeatedly played along with Trump’s gauzy challenges, including in the hours after rioters overran the Capitol on Jan. 6.
We are not so naïve as to expect consistency from elected officials on either side of the political aisle. But the comparison between the situation in Iowa and the effort that led to the violence in January are broadly incomparable.
Speaking to Raju, McCarthy rejected the idea that his support for Trump’s spaghetti-throwing constituted support for overturning the presidential election, arguing that rejecting the results in Arizona and Pennsylvania — an effort for which he voted — wouldn’t have affected the final results of the presidential contest. It was, of course, an attempt to disenfranchise (as McCarthy put it in another context) 10.3 million presidential voters in those states. It’s like saying that tossing 393,916 votes in Iowa’s Second District would be fine if the remaining six votes were for Miller-Meeks.
The central difference between the two contests is that the results in Iowa depend on whether those 22 rejected ballots are included. There was no scenario in the presidential contest in 2020 in which there existed a quantifiable set of ballots that could have altered the result in one state, much less a sufficient number of states to affect the results of the electoral vote (to say nothing of Biden’s 7 million-ballot popular vote victory).
Put another way, the presidential contest was not by any reasonable definition a squeaker. Sometimes candidates present non-squeaker races as squeakers to save face or out of some detachment from reality, as Trump did. His objections were rooted in psychology, not reality, and his party’s acquiescence to his false claims of fraud had the same driving force.
That said, there is validity to the idea that overturning the results in Iowa would do the Democrats more political harm than good. Counting votes is a bit like measuring a first down in the NFL: It depends on a lot of subjective calls and unrelated determinations that give the appearance of precision. Yes, there are these 22 votes that Hart’s team would like to adjudicate, but the most precise argument that one can make about the race, really, is that it was essentially a tie.
There’s some history of a Democrat-led House overturning a race to benefit its party, and it’s an ugly one. In 1985, the party did just that, unnecessarily padding its majority but handing Republicans a potent argument about the party’s willingness to ignore what it presented as the will of voters. That was in a moment when the stakes for such an interpretation were fairly low; now, thanks to Trump’s efforts and his party’s assistance, the stakes are high. The bar for ousting Miller-Meeks may be finding seven votes, but, politically, Democrats clearly understand that it is far higher.
The haziness at the edges of our voting process is one of the reasons that elections tend to be formally settled by the loser offering his or her concession. There are always uncertainties about the complete vote count in an election (though rarely substantive ones,) but candidates generally agree that close enough is good enough.
In Iowa, the results have so far proven too close for Hart to be so gracious. (One suspects that Democratic officials would be happy to have her concede, given the stakes, but that’s not the point.) In the presidential contest, the results were too close for Trump to do so — in the sense that they showed him with a deficit of any size.
Trump lost handily but demanded that his allies pretend he didn’t. In Iowa, the Democrat appears to have lost narrowly, with Republicans demanding that the opposition be quiet and accept it.